Adrenal diseases can cause the adrenal glands to produce too much or not enough hormones, including sex hormones and cortisol. These adrenal diseases can cause a variety of symptoms that range from mild to life-threatening.
Destruction of the adrenal gland due to an auto-immune response is one cause of adrenal disease. Cancer, infection or other conditions may also lead to adrenal diseases.
Other causes include:
- The use of corticosteroids as a treatment (such as prednisone). This treatment method can cause a slowdown in production of natural corticosteroids by the adrenal glands, resulting in adrenal disease symptoms.
- Certain drugs used to treat fungal infections may block production of corticosteroids in the adrenal glands.
Diseases that cause an overproduction of hormones from the adrenal glands have a variety of symptoms, including:
- Exaggerated male characteristics in both men and women, such as increased facial and body hair, baldness, acne, deeper voice and increased masculinity
- High blood pressure
- Symptoms associated with low levels of potassium (i.e., weakness, muscle aches, spasms and possible paralysis)
- Upper body obesity
- Round face
- Increased fat around the neck
- Thinning of the arms and legs
- Fragile and thinning skin
- Stretch marks on the abdomen, thighs, buttocks, arms and breasts
- Bone and muscle weakness
- Severe fatigue
- High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
- Irritability and anxiety
- Excess hair growth in women
- Irregular or stopped menstrual cycles in women
- Reduced male sex drive
- Reduced male fertility
An underproduction of hormones may cause the following adrenal disease symptoms:
- Dark skin
- Black freckles
- Bluish-black discoloration around the nipples, mouth, rectum, scrotum or vagina
- Weight loss
- Lack of appetite
- Muscle aches
- Intolerance to cold
- Low blood pressure
- Kidney failure
- Abdominal pain
Cushing’s syndrome – This condition is the result of the excessive production of corticosteroids by the adrenal glands. One known cause is the overproduction of corticotropin — the hormone that controls the adrenal gland — by the pituitary gland. This stimulates the adrenal glands to produce excess corticosteroids. Other causes of this adrenal disease can include:
- Benign tumors of the adrenal glands
- Cancerous tumors of the adrenal glands
- Some variety of lung cancers
- Other tumors outside the pituitary gland
Aldosterone excess — An overproduction of the aldosterone hormone can lead to high blood pressure and to adrenal disease symptoms associated with low levels of potassium (i.e., weakness, muscle aches, spasms and possible paralysis).
Pheochromocytoma — Pheochromocytomas are rare adrenal gland tumors that can secrete excess epinephrine and norepinephrine hormones. These hormones are responsible for regulating a number of bodily functions including heart rate, metabolism and blood pressure making it a potentially fatal adrenal disease. Pheochromocytomas occur most frequently in young to middle-aged adults between the ages of 30 and 60.
Adrenal insufficiency — Certain adrenal diseases are characterized by a reduction in the production of cortisol within the adrenal glands (also known as hydrocortisone hormone) and aldosterone, often due to certain missing enzymes (proteins that speed up or cause chemical reactions). This results in the overstimulation of the hypothalamus as it detects low hormone levels. The hypothalamus begins to stimulate the pituitary gland in order to further stimulate the adrenal glands. This overstimulation ultimately leads to an enlargement of the adrenal glands.
Overstimulation of the adrenal glands can lead to overproduction of androgens, which can lead to masculinization.